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CHRISTIAN COUPLES AND CONTRACEPTION
by Shaun Willcock
“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply...” (Gen.1:27,28).
In this article, the author is going to be giving scriptural teaching on a very sensitive subject. In earlier, less complicated and confusing times, it was very simple: a man and a woman came together in marriage, and as a general rule children followed. Contraceptive methods were practiced - they have always been practiced, in fact - but they were unsophisticated and frequently unreliable, nothing like the modern methods available today.
Yes, those were definitely less complicated and confusing times. Today, when couples marry (and Christian couples are not immune from this), they are swamped with advice and suggestions from all quarters: relatives, friends, literature, doctors, etc. They hear dire warnings of the consequences of “not using some form of birth control,” because “you surely don’t want children right away, do you?” The Christian woman, especially, as she plans for marriage, often comes under great pressure to use certain “birth control” methods, never examining what the Scriptures have to say on this matter, nor the harmful effects on her own body, nor the tragic and horrifying results of using certain methods which in fact are nothing less than forms of abortion!
So many Christians are so ignorant of these very important matters. Certainly very few receive scriptural teaching about these things. Why do even sound pastors generally remain silent about this subject? “Oh, it’s not for us to interfere. It’s a private matter to be decided by each couple.” Really? When God has spoken in His Word, are we not to obey? To give an example on another sensitive subject: God’s Word says, “The wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband: and likewise also the husband hath not power of his own body, but the wife. Defraud ye not one the other, except it be with consent for a time... and come together again” (1 Cor.7:4,5). Do we say that it’s a “private matter,” and therefore the pastor should not teach this part of God’s Word, merely because it speaks of what is done in the privacy of the bedroom? Certainly not! All aspects of marriage need to be properly taught to the flock. The Lord’s people need to know how they are to behave, not only in public but even in their most private moments. For “the eyes of the Lord are in every place, beholding the evil and the good” (Prov.15:3). What occurs in the bedroom may be hidden from other men, but not from God; and the Christian couple are to glorify the Lord even there.
There was a time when all matters of a sexual nature were hardly ever spoken of at all; and considering the importance of preserving modesty, and preventing lustful thoughts, one can understand why this came about. But this almost-total ban on the subject was, in fact, a case of going beyond the Scriptures themselves: for the Bible has much to say about sexual matters. This should hardly be surprising, for the Lord Himself created man and woman with the ability to procreate (Gen.1:27,28). Sexual intercourse is the God-ordained means for the perpetuation of the human race! It is, then, nothing less than disobedience to God when ministers of Christ fail to give scriptural teaching on sexual matters.
Today, the pendulum has swung completely in the opposite direction. All matters of a sexual nature are now discussed, dissected, and analysed, openly, freely, with anyone and everyone, as readily as if discussing a recipe or an afternoon stroll. This is to be deplored, and the Lord’s people should not be guilty of it. But it makes it even more imperative for proper scriptural teaching to be given! Christians, living as they do in this fallen world, are bombarded with all kinds of false teaching, human opinions, etc., on sexual matters. Earlier generations did not have to grapple with these issues to such an extent, but alas! we do not live in such an uncluttered world anymore. It is thus the duty of every true pastor to keep himself informed about the world around him, so as to be able to give scriptural counsel to the often-bewildered sheep under his care. And in addition, it is the duty of every true Christian, in general, to search the Scriptures, and to discover the will of God, before rushing in and doing things which he or she would later have cause to regret. So yes, the subject of contraception is a sensitive one. But it cannot be avoided because of that. Teaching must be provided, boldly and without compromise.
Is Contraception Sinful? The Account of Onan
The author is well aware that many saints of God in the past believed, and many believe today, that all contraceptive methods are automatically sinful; but this position is not supported by the Word of God. Those who take this position believe they find support for it in the biblical account of Onan. And so to this passage we must now turn.
“And Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn, whose name was Tamar. And Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the Lord; and the Lord slew him. And Judah said unto Onan, Go in unto thy brother’s wife, and marry her, and raise up seed to thy brother. And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother’s wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother. And the thing which he did displeased the Lord [marginal note: “was evil in the eyes of the Lord”]: wherefore he slew him also” (Gen.38:6-10).
The question is: what was it that he did, which so displeased the Lord, being evil in His eyes? Those who say that all contraceptive methods are sinful, claim that Onan’s sin was that he practiced a crude form of contraception. But they are not rightly interpreting the text. This was not his sin. His sin was that he refused to raise up seed unto his brother! This was the thing which so displeased the Lord!
Through Moses, the Lord gave the following commandment to the Israelites: “If brethren dwell together, and one of them die, and have no child, the wife of the dead shall not marry without unto a stranger: her husband’s brother shall go in unto her, and take her to him to wife, and perform the duty of an husband’s brother unto her. And it shall be, that the firstborn which she beareth shall succeed in the name of his brother which is dead, that his name be not put out of Israel” (Deut.25:5,6). It was to this very text that the Sadducees referred when they tried to trap Jesus (Lk.20:27-40).
Onan, of course, lived long before Moses; but it is clear from Gen.38 that the patriarchs knew this was the will of the Lord for them even before Moses wrote it down by divine inspiration. Judah obviously knew the will of God in this matter, for he said to Onan his son, “raise up seed to thy brother.” Onan “knew that the seed should not be his.” He knew that his firstborn son would be called the son of Er, his brother. And he resented it! So what did he do? When he “went in” unto his new wife, the widow of Er, he practiced a contraceptive method known as coitus interruptus: he “spilled it on the ground.” And the reason for his action is given, so that we are not in any doubt whatsoever about the sinfulness of it: he did it “lest that he should give seed to his brother.”
Immediately afterwards, the Word of God says, “And the thing which he did displeased the Lord: wherefore he slew him also.” Why was Onan’s action so sinful? First, he disobeyed the will of God. Second, he had no genuine love for his deceased brother, and perhaps he coveted his brother’s estate for himself. Third, he misused his brother’s wife, who, according to God’s will for the people in those times, was entitled to conceive a child from him in the name of her first husband, to ensure that the deceased’s name did not disappear from the earth, and that his inheritance did not pass into the hands of someone else. Fourth, he did what he could to prevent the seed of Abraham from multiplying. And fifth, he did what he could, as far as was in his power (humanly speaking), to hinder the coming of the Messiah, who was to come through the family of Judah. If he had not committed this sin, he might have had the honour of being an ancestor of the Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh. Raising up seed unto one’s brother was a particular divine requirement for God’s people in those times (it is not a divine requirement for anyone today); and thus it was sinful for Onan to do what he did. But may we use this passage to condemn the use of all contraceptive methods for all time? Certainly not. This is reading into the inspired text what is simply not there.
When Does Life Begin?
Some who have argued against contraception from the account of Onan have claimed that it was a kind of murder. But is this true? No, it is not. The “seed” of the man on its own, just like the unfertilised egg of the woman, is not a human being! Life only begins at the moment of conception. And this is something that every Christian needs to understand very clearly from God’s Word. God is “the Father of spirits” (Heb.12:9), for it is the Lord who “formeth the spirit of man within him” (Zech.12:1). As death occurs when the human spirit departs from the body (Jas.2:26; Eccl.12:7), so life begins when God forms the spirit of man within him (see Lk.8:54,55). And this occurs at the moment of conception. When the sperm of the male penetrates the egg of the female, conception occurs; and at that moment, the Creator forms the human spirit within that new physical being - just as Adam became a living soul when the Lord God breathed the breath (or spirit) of life into him (Gen.2:7). The parents are involved in the conception of the physical being in the womb, but the human spirit is not passed down from parent to child! Each human spirit is uniquely created by God.
The baby in the mother’s womb, then, is a human being! A human being comes into existence when fertilization occurs. And this is why abortion is nothing less than murder! - the murder of an unborn human being. That child in the womb does not become a human being at a week old, or ten weeks old, or only when it emerges from the womb at birth: from the very moment of conception, a human being begins to exist in the womb! As David wrote in Psa.51:5, “in sin did my mother conceive me.” He described himself as a person (“me”) from the very moment of conception! And many other portions of Holy Scripture assert the same great truth: see Gen.25:22; Psa.139:13-16; Jer.1:4,5; Lk.1:15,36,41-44; Gal.1:15.
But before conception occurs, is there life? No, there is not. Biologically and biblically, life only begins when the male sperm and the female egg fuse and become one. Prior to this - the very moment of conception - there is no life. And thus, what Onan did was certainly not murder! It was sinful for other reasons, as seen above, but murder was not one of the sins he committed. And so with that, we must examine what the Bible says about the blessing of children, and then we must examine the various contraceptive methods, as well as those which are erroneously referred to as “contraceptive” methods, in the light of scriptural teaching.
One of the Purposes for Marriage
One of the purposes for which God instituted marriage was for the legitimate increase of mankind. “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply” (Gen.1:27,28). When a man and woman come together in marriage, it is right and proper for them to become parents in due time, if the Lord grants them this. “Lo, children are an heritage of the Lord: and the fruit of the womb is his reward. As arrows are in the hand of a mighty man; so are children of the youth. Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them” (Psa.127:3-5).
Now here we must digress a little. Psa.127 contains a general rule, to which there most certainly are exceptions. Children are not granted to every married couple. God, who graciously gives children (Gen.33:5), also at times withholds them from some (Gen.30:2). Much hurt has been caused to childless couples by foolish professing Christians who do not “rightly divide” Psa.127. For one thing, it is not saying that all Christian couples can expect to have children: children are an heritage of the Lord, but not the only one! Childless couples must bear this in mind, and understand that the sovereign Lord gives other blessings, besides children. For another thing, although it says, “Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them,” we are not to take this to mean that the Christian’s happiness consists solely in having children! The believer must be happy in the Lord, happy having none but the Lord, if that is the Lord’s will. Paul the apostle had neither wife nor children, but he was certainly happy, for he rejoiced in the Lord. And there are many Christians, like Paul, who have neither wife nor children. There are others who are married, but their spouses hate them because they love and follow the Lord. The Christian woman, then, who has no children (something like 15% of all couples are childless), but who has a loving husband, should rejoice for the husband she has! Hannah was childless; but her loving husband, Elkanah, said to her: “am not I better to thee than ten sons?” (1 Sam.1:8).
This was true, simply in the sense that it is a woman’s husband who is to be her protector, provider, and lifelong companion. He is there before any children, and will be there after they have grown and left the home. No matter how loving and devoted a son is to his mother (and a good son will remain so all his life), as a general rule he eventually leaves home, and cleaves unto a wife of his own, and they start their own family. This is the way God has ordered it (Gen.2:24). The children “leave the nest,” but the husband remains. The wife who thinks, then, that life is hardly worth living because she has no children, is doing wrong to the man who loves her and cares for her! How wrong was Rachel’s cry of desperation to Jacob, which sprung from envy of her sister’s fruitfulness: “Give me children or else I die” (Gen.30:1)! She had the great love of Jacob (Gen.29:20), but she was not content with that, and in her sinful cry of anguish she treated him very wrongly. And furthermore, she thought she would die because she had no children; but in fact she died giving birth to the second one the Lord finally gave her (Gen.35:16-20). What a lesson here! Rachel thought the worst calamity imaginable was having no children; and yet when she finally did have them, she did not live to enjoy them.
Certainly, a believer who has children will derive much pleasure from them; but the professing Christian who seeks for happiness solely in children will be disappointed. Children are a truly wonderful blessing, given to parents to love with all their hearts; but as great a blessing as it is, it is mixed with sorrow, from which those who do not have children are spared. The great difficulties of raising children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord; the pain of seeing them commit all kinds of sins because of their depraved natures; the pain of constantly having to discipline them with the rod (for this is painful to the parent, even though necessary and right); the heartache for many of seeing their adult children, even if externally moral and decent because of faithful training by the parents throughout childhood, yet still unregenerate after many years - all these things add up to parenthood being a mixture of much joy and much sorrow. Besides, we “know not what shall be on the morrow” (Jas.4:14), and a Christian parent may die before he or she has had time to enjoy the children the Lord has given, as Rachel did; or the children may die before the parents, as Job’s did (Job 1:18,19), which is heartache enough for any parents. If the foundation of Job’s happiness had been in his children, then he could never have responded in the wonderful way he did when they were all killed: “the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21).
The foundation of Job’s happiness was the Lord Himself! The children whom God had given him were received by him as an immense blessing from the Lord, but he made no idols out of them, nor sought for all his happiness in them, much less the source and foundation of his happiness. Too many professing Christians make this terrible mistake. The very next psalm - Psa.128 - says, “Thy wife shall be as a fruitful vine by the sides of thine house: thy children like olive plants round about thy table. Behold, that thus shall the man be blessed that feareth the Lord.... Yea, thou shalt see thy children’s children” (vv.3,4,6). But again, as with Psa.127, it is wrong to take this psalm as being applicable to every single Christian in every single case. Paul the apostle was certainly a man that feared the Lord, yet he had neither wife nor children nor grandchildren. Was he, then, not blessed of the Lord? Most certainly he was! - but in other ways. And so it is with all the Lord’s people who have no children. Please take note of Isa.56:1-5!
Contentment! Every child of God must learn to be content with what they have (Phil.4:11). It is right for believing husbands (Gen.25:21) and believing wives (1 Sam.1:9-20) to pray to the Lord if they are childless; but still they must learn contentment, resting in the Lord’s will for them, knowing that He will always do what is best for them.
But to return to the main point. One of the purposes for which God instituted marriage was for the legitimate increase of mankind. And the man and woman who marry are to enter into this state with the full intention of having children at some point, if it pleases the Lord to “open the womb” (Gen.30:22). This popular modern attitude that many couples have, who say, “Oh, we don’t plan to have any children - we don’t want any,” is an unscriptural one. Generally, it springs from selfishness and greed: they do not want the “hassle” of children, they do not want to make the sacrifices necessary, they cannot bear the thought of having to cut back on the “fun” they have, or the thought of having less money. No Christian couple should enter into marriage with such a sinful attitude.
Another Purpose for Marriage
But (and it is a most important but!) marriage was not only ordained by God for the legitimate increase of mankind! This is certainly one of its purposes, beyond any shadow of doubt; but not the only one. Another purpose for which the Lord God instituted marriage was for the mutual pleasure of both husband and wife! Consider carefully the words of 1 Cor.7:2-5: “Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband. Let the husband render unto the wife due benevolence: and likewise also the wife unto the husband. The wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband: and likewise also the husband hath not power of his own body, but the wife. Defraud ye not one the other, except it be with consent for a time, that ye may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again, that Satan tempt you not for your incontinency.” And v.9 says, “But if they [the unmarried, and widows] cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn.” In a nutshell, this passage of Scripture is saying that marriage was instituted by God to prevent people from burning with lust, and committing fornication; and that husband and wife should “come together” (i.e. in sexual intercourse), and not defraud one another, except when by mutual consent they refrain because they are engaged in periods of special prayer and fasting.
We are not told here that husband and wife must only come together for the purpose of conceiving children! Many women are theoretically able to conceive children year after year after year! Now if sexual intercourse is only for the purpose of conceiving children, then the married couple have only two choices: they either only come together whenever they want the wife to conceive, in which case (if, say, they feel they would like only three children) they would only come together as often as necessary to produce three children - and then never again; or, they come together whenever they like, and have as many children as she is able to conceive!
Well, the first choice would mean that the commandment of 1 Cor.7:5 would be disobeyed, for this states: “Defraud ye not one the other... come together again, that Satan tempt you not”. So this is wrong. And the second choice would mean, for many couples, that they would end up with many, many children - in some cases, perhaps, twenty or even more. Now what has to be established is: although couples may continue to have children if they want to, do they have to? Or may they take steps to limit the number they have?
There are those who say, “No steps must be taken to limit the size of one’s family. The husband and wife must come together, without using any methods of contraception, and if many children are granted to them, they must be content with this, as being God’s will. As Psa.127 says, children are an heritage of the Lord, and the fruit of the womb is His reward.” But this position is in fact going beyond the Scriptures themselves. Firstly, because nowhere does the Bible say that married couples must just keep on having children - not even in Psa.127, which is only teaching that children are one of the great blessings the Lord gives to many (but certainly not to all) of His people. Secondly, because sexual intercourse is not only for the purpose of conceiving children, as 1 Cor.7 makes plain. Although it is not right for a married couple to take a decision never to have children, they are free to decide how many they would like to have, if the Lord wills, whether one, two, ten, or any other figure. And, therefore, they are entitled to take legitimate steps to prevent having more than that number. For as sexual intercourse is plainly not only for the purpose of begetting children, and in fact must be a normal part of a married couple’s life (according to 1 Cor.7), it follows that the only way to obey 1 Cor.7:2-5, without conceiving children, is to make use of legitimate contraceptive methods.
And it is at this point that we must get down to specifics. A term often used is “birth control.” But really, this term is broader in meaning than “contraception,” because contraception means the prevention of conception, whereas birth control means the controlling of how many children are born! Conception may have taken place, a new life may have begun, but “birth control” can still sinfully prevent that unborn life from being born! Thus, “birth control” is not an option for the Christian: once conception takes place, birth must follow, and not be prevented! Conception alone may be prevented!
And furthermore: the only legitimate contraceptives are those which do nothing more than prevent conception - anything which prevents implantation of the embryo in the uterus is not contraception (prevention of conception), it is abortion (for conception has already occurred). This will become clearer as we proceed.